The majority of this trip I'd put into the category of "Type II Fun". For those that might be unfamiliar, I'll defer to this cartoon.


Five years ago, my best friend Josh received orders that he'd be stationed for work in San Diego -- a truly terrible place to have to call home. For the next few years, I watched from afar as he made the Southern California coast his home. Admittedly, I was jealous, particularly of his new found hobby -- spearfishing in the cold, murky waters of the Pacific Ocean. He regaled me with stories of deep water adventures in kelp forests and the instrumental effect that spearing had on him. I wanted to experience that myself. More importantly, I wanted to share in those experiences with him. So, after five long years, we finally made a plan to head south for the crystal clear waters off the Florida Keys for a DIY spearing trip where my best friend could teach me a thing or two about the sport he's come to love. We carved out a few days in late March of 2024. We booked our flights, a humble place to sleep, and a 20ft center console. Spirits were immeasurably high... but nature had other plans (as it all too frequently does).

Day 1:

Our flight touched down and we discovered the unfavorable weather conditions that awaited us. So unfavorable, in fact, that the friendly folks from whom we were renting our fishing boat strongly advised against us taking her out. We agreed. 30 knot winds, thunderstorms, and five foot seas weren't part of our risk calculus. We caught a ride to our homestay (a 60ft houseboat) to drop our bags and settle in, since day one was shaping up to be a wash. As I unlocked the cabin door, I was met with the overwhelming scent of gasoline. "Perhaps thats normal on a houseboat," I pondered. Josh entered a few moments later.

"Why the fuck does it smell like gasoline, Stephen?" He asked.

"I figured thats what all houseboats smelled like...?" I responded.

"No, Stephen... No they don't." Josh rebutted.

I suggested that we use the next few hours to grab supplies, knock back a few beers, and explore the local haunts for chow while the boat aired out. Josh agreed. Tomorrow would be a big day and it would behoove us to get the boring chores out of the way.

Day 2:

The morning alarm chimed well before dawn. I rolled out of my small bed in the bow of the boat and made my way to Josh's sleeping quarters. I poked my head into his doorway.

"It still smells like gasoline in this goddamn boat," he grumbled.

"I'll make coffee," I said.

Stepping into the fresh air (and out of the noxious fumes), the clear sky raised our spirits considerably. There was more wind in the forecast, but nothing that worried us. As dawn approached, we hurried to load the small fishing boat with spears, camera gear, snacks, and a cooler full of ice for the fish we planned to throw in after a morning hunt. We decided that packing a lunch was unnecessary -- the soy, lime, and chilis would be the perfect complement to the sashimi we'd prepare on board.

We fired up the engine and slowly made our way out of the marina and toward the ocean. In the calmness of the no-wake zone, I decided to apply sunscreen for what promised to be a hot sunny day on the water. I peeled off my layers and began to apply SPF vigorously to my pale, winter skin. In a series of events that are still unclear to me, the boat was rocked by a wake... in a no wake zone. I lost my balance (sea legs!) and fell forward onto the small bench where I laid my belongings. I heard a snap. My sunglasses -- a pricey pair of Maui Jims -- lay broken in front of me. Snapped in half, victim to the weight of my fall. The consequences quickly dawned on me... The sun had barely risen and we had two full days of fishing ahead of us. My eyes would be red, shriveled raisins by noon. Josh offered some words of comfort, but the damage was done. For the next two days, my world would be un-polarized. Note to self: always bring a backup pair of shades.

We hit the throttle and pushed 3 miles offshore to a barrier reef that was rumored to hold decent fish. Josh cut the engine, threw on some goggles, and stuck his face in the water to determine visibility. It was shit. Yesterday's storms kicked-up all sorts of sediment and there was no spearing to be had in deeper water. Moreover, the currents were strong and seas were still relatively high, so we'd need to find somewhere else to fish. We decided the best course of action was to head back to the shallows and fish the sea grass beds. Josh fired up the engine yet again, and we sped toward a nearby key.

Then a gust of wind ripped across the bow, taking Josh's favorite hat with it. "MAN OVERBOARD!" I yelled in jest. We turned the boat around to no avail. The hat was quickly swallowed by the whitecaps. Another friend lost to the seas. I took over the helm to allow Josh a few minutes to grieve for his hat.

We quickly approached a small key, dropped anchor, and slipped into our gear. We were finally getting into the water, and despite the recent losses, we were stoked. I couldn't have been more excited to try out a new toy -- an underwater housing for my camera. I've wanted one for years and this trip was finally the excuse I needed to make the purchase. I loaded up my camera and jumped into the water after Josh. The poor visibility made for some interesting conditions under the surface and the new housing was a bit of a learning curve in the water. I shot blindly. I tried to frame some decent images and accepted that this dive would be far from my greatest work. I was excited to see the images nonetheless.

After getting back on the boat, I realized that I'd left my camera in manual focus. Rookie move. My heart sank in embarrassment.

"How are the photos?!" Josh asked as he took a swig of fresh water. "Awesome," I lied.

I managed to salvage a few images from the outing -- opting for a B&W grade to draw the eye toward the light and create an eerie feeling. Could've been worse.

The rest of our day was rather uneventful. No fish were taken, hardly any were seen. Around lunchtime, we opened up our cooler to the reminder of the sashimi that never was -- a few limes, a couple of jalapeños, and a bottle of soy sauce. Instead, our "lunch" was a bag of chips and some salsa. After trying my luck with a fly rod near some mangroves, we called it quits and went back to the marina. What we needed now was a home cooked meal and a night's rest. We stayed hopeful for a new day. We'd give 'em hell tomorrow.

01 / 06

Day 3:

Our final shot at spearing started early. We wanted to make a point of seeing sunrise from the water, so we puttered out of the inlet shortly after dawn. We were greeted with a beautiful and dramatic sunrise -- just what we'd hoped for. I took photos while Josh setup his new drone for what we knew would be some incredible footage. Josh had purchased his drone a few months back in anticipation for the trip. He loved this thing. The photos and video he'd captured thus far were nothing short of awesome, but he'd yet to fly it while on the water.

I slowed the engine to a near stop to give Josh a calm takeoff. As it took-off from the bow, the drone entered a soft hover roughly three feet above us. But, as the boat slowly drifted forward, the drone (which was stationary) was on track to hit the awning above the center console. Josh quickly noticed the impending collision. He threw forward an outstretched hand to catch the drone and save it from crashing into the aluminum structure. Instead, his fingers met the whirling blades of the quadcopter. It lost control, careened into the awning, and we watched as it splashed into the inky black water beneath us. I cut the engines and began to jump in after it.

"Stop! Just stop. Its gone. It's gone, man," said Josh in a defeated and disappointed tone. I watched as the blinking lights disappeared below. Down and down it went.

Another soul lost to the deep.

We stood in silence for a few moments. I said nothing.

"All the photos and footage from the trip were on that memory card, too..." Josh said.

It was 6:30am. Josh cracked open a high-noon. I still said nothing. Nothing need be said. I gave him a pat on the shoulder, we pulled out a map, and charted our course for a new reef.

Conditions were much better today and we had to make the most of it on these final hours of our trip. While I dropped anchor while Josh raised the diver down flag. The boat pitched up and down in the choppy 2-foot seas as I slipped on some neoprene booties and got my camera in its housing. With my eyes no longer focused on the horizon, my stomach churned. I heard a splash as Josh entered the water from the stern. A few moments later, he emerged.

"Fish!!!" he exclaimed, "a lot of fish!!! The viz is decent, get your ass in here."

My seasickness would have to wait. I grabbed my camera and followed Josh into the blue. I tried my best to keep up, but he was faster and stronger than me in the water. His breath holds were long and controlled. Mine were short and erratic. I watched as he dove calmly to the bottom, blending in with the dark reef and scanning his surroundings. My heart rate was jacked. Try as I would, each attempt to go deeper would only get more difficult as CO2 built up in my body. I was admittedly frustrated. While I'd been working on my breath holds for about 8 weeks, I quickly learned that practicing on my couch was very different from being in the water. We were fighting currents and I was expending far more energy than I expected. I felt weak compared to both Josh's abilities and my own expectations.

20 minutes passed. Water was pouring into my snorkel from the constant small, choppy waves. If I wasn't swallowing seawater, I was inhaling it. My stomach began to turn. I spit out my snorkel to get in a deep breath. Another wave overtook me. I shouted to Josh that I was heading back to the boat to catch my breath -- to which he responded with a thumbs up and another dive down to the bottom. I started a slow swim back to the boat when a white cap caught me by surprise. The mouthful of seawater pushed me to my limit. I gagged. I dry heaved. Another wave -- another mouthful of saltwater. I then began to vomit. Then again. And again. I could hardly breathe.

"Do sharks like bile?" I wondered aloud. I stuck my face underwater to scan my surroundings. I vomited again. I felt a feeling that a young man rarely feels -- fear. I was in over my head.

"What the fuck am I doing out here?!"

I clamored back onto the pitching boat and felt purely exhausted. I grabbed hold of an aluminum railing and gasped for air. As I caught my breath, I heard Josh climb onto the boat. He gave me a nod, rehydrated, and then jumped right back into the water, spear in hand. I had to follow him in. I didn't want my trip to end like this -- cross eyed and green on the bow of a boat while my friend is alone in the ocean beneath me. I forced down a few doses of dramamine, drank some water, and got back into the sea. Putting aside my hubris, I was surprised to find myself feeling better. Perhaps it was the empty stomach. Or the dramamine. Or the new mindset. While I still struggled to keep up with Josh, I used the time to do a bit of exploring of my own. The reef was teeming with life. Parrot fish, hogfish, lobsters, and plenty of other creatures that I lack the knowledge to name. I watched as Josh stalked a few fish, but passed on most in the hope of a bigger prize.

We spent most of the daylight hours on the water, and as time passed I grew more comfortable beneath the surface. With that comfort, I was able to get more creative behind the camera -- framing images rather than sprayin' n' prayin' at anything that interested me. For my first time underwater (and with less than ideal conditions), I'm pretty happy with what I managed to walk away with. It left me yearning for more opportunities shoot in this new, challenging environment.

01 / 13

Day 4

While sitting in the Ft Lauderdale airport on an extended layover, I felt the rocking motion of our boat. I reflected on what went well, what went wrong, and some of the lessons learned. Chiefly among those lessons -- respect the ocean. I boarded the 737 and sat down in a cramped window seat. I watched as more folks piled in like sardines and wondered how they'd spent their weekend... Perhaps underneath a cabana enjoying a margarita. Or maybe some of them came up empty on the fishing trip they'd planned for a year. The engines roared, the plane took off, and I slipped into a shallow sleep. I awoke as the plane bounced onto the tarmac in Denver. I sent Josh a text.

"When's our next spearing trip??"